Dated to 1931, this striking portrait of a young berber woman, to judge from the facial tattoos, was painted on one of Max Moreau’s numerous visits to Tunisia. Basing himself in the capital Tunis, Moreau travelled widely, visiting the island of Djerba, and the towns and cities of Gabès, Kairouan, Kébili, Nabeul, Sfax and Sousse, enabling him to see much of the country and the different peoples who populated it.
Berbers, or Amazigh in their own language, are an ethnic group indigenous to the Maghreb region of North Africa, inhabiting the modern-day countries of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria from at least the Bronze Age, therefore predating the Islamic-Arab conquests of the 7th century by millennia.
Moreau’s sitter looks defiantly out at the viewer. Thick black locks of wavy hair tumble out of a brown veil, and her face emerges from the volumetric folds of the blue headscarf. Facial tattoos are visible on the chin, cheeks and forehead, drawn with a needle containing kohl and coal ash. The line of another tattoo can be glimpsed on her arm, snaking downwards from underneath the pink sleeve. The tradition of tattoos amongst Berber women predates Islam and were perceived to protect the wearers from bad spirits of ‘Jhoun’. In Berber culture the tattoos are referred to as ‘Jedwel’, which means Talisman, and are seen as a rite of passage which are added at key stages in life. They can be seen in other images of Berber women from the first half of the twentieth century, such as Lehnert & Landrock’s well-known photograph of a young woman from the Ouled Naïl tribe (fig. 1).
Fig. 1, Lehnert & Landrock, Young Ouled Naïl woman, c. 1905 silver
gelatin print, Private Collection
The painting, in fine condition, demonstrates Moreau’s technical facility, building up form and volume with the flick of his brush, working up some areas more fully than others, allowing the viewer to focus on the face of the sitter. Moreau was clearly entranced by the sitter and his wonderment at encountering, and scrutinising the features, of those he came across during his five visits to Tunisia is clear in his own writings: ‘What a pleasure it is for the enchanted portraitist who wanders through the labyrinth of a city. At every step are heads of character, at every street corner, living models out of the Bible. Misery, suffering, old age and disease have hollowed out this face; youth and beauty irradiate that one; this Bedouin women passes like a princess in nameless rags of admirable colour; this grave rabbi bears on his features the full weight of a formidable past…’.
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